The audio alert
Hello, audio consumers of Sponge. Did you know that there is a written segment of Sponge?
This includes all the transcripts of the audio episodes, but also, blog posts that were written entries by birth. This is because some things are just too visual.
And for that reason, episode 7 will be a written one. Because, I’m gonna be talking about the visual aspect of “Destination Earth,” the ideology of which we covered in the previous episode.
So, click on the link in the show notes, and I will see you there.
The written segment
Skin color, as well as all other colors, can be chosen for effective and efficient propaganda. This is something I absorbed from the film “Destination Earth,” produced by John Sutherland Studios in 1956.
Before Sponge became Sponge, I briefly mentioned in the post “Animated wonder” one of the reasons I like animations. It’s that “the things you couldn’t possibly choose as a creator (if you were to work with real humans) can be chosen, can be fine-tuned in the animated world.” This is how some anime characters have eyes that take up half their faces. This is how animation heroes can defy gravity without a ridiculously huge budget and multiple insurance policies.
And this is how you get characters with yellow skin. Like, really yellow. Yellow yellow. Like this:
Yellow people! So cute!
And my theory is that this skin color, as well as all other colors in the film “Destination Earth,” were chosen for effective and efficient propaganda to a degree that never would’ve been possible with “real” actors and “real” settings. More specifically, the creators achieved effective and efficient propaganda through specific color use 1) by embracing the irreality of animation, 2) by emphasizing the characters’ and message’s supposed harmlessness, and 3) by providing a level of clarity that is rarely available elsewhere, even in animation as a genre.
1) The embraced irreality factor
For convenience’s sake, sometimes the world uses skin color to identify groups of people. Such skin color descriptions function like tags. As in, just like the phrases “the man with the glasses” or “the girl with the long eyelashes,” skin color can be short identifying markers.
The most frequently used tags in the US, in the skin color area, are probably the tags “white people” and “black people.”Although many other skin colors exist in the US, I haven’t heard other color tags being used as actively as “black” and “white.” For example, I would probably be classified as “yellow,” me being of East Asian descent. But nobody ever called me a yellow person. 😅
That, however, doesn’t mean that, if a cartoon character were to have a skin tinged with yellow, there’s a likelihood that it would be associated with people of Asian descent. Similarly, if the character’s skin were tinged with red, brown, or any of the other shades of the human skin, such a character might be seen as being representative of one of those various racial backgrounds.
Such associations between color and particular races aren’t universal. In countries that don’t have as diverse a population as the US, people might very well overlook such associations altogether. (And even when they do form an association, they might see the skin color as something unique to the character, and not as a representation of a whole entire race and its history and so on and so forth.)
But “Destination Earth” was produced in the US. Granted, it was “produced at the height of the Cold War,” which was before the era of the Internet, so that maybe the public perception of racial diversity was more limited than nowadays. But still. Even then (the year 1956), the USA was a more racially diverse country than most other countries in the world.
So, what did the John Sutherland Studios use as the skin color of the Martians?
Yellow. Really really yellow yellow. This is a kind of yellow that doesn’t exist in humans, in nature.
To utilize any shade of yellowish skin tone that is close to the actual skin color of Asian people would have imbued this short film with too much realism and too many read-between-the-lines hidden messages that aren’t related to the intended propaganda of the creators. A few I can think of are:
- Is this short film saying that Americans of Asian descent need to be convinced to embrace the usage of petroleum?
- Is it saying that Asians are the enemies who are invading Earth/USA?
- Or, maybe by making the protagonist seemingly Asian American, the American Petroleum Institute is praising Asian Americans? Maybe they’re trying to depict Asian Americans in a positive light, because they have been able to gather information and learn about petroleum within the story, while other aliens of other racial backgrounds did not?
Even in an era before the current climate of political correctness (and its accompanying myriads of over-analysis), the possibilities of reading into the intent of the creators would have been endless. With a propaganda film, it’s especially so.
Choosing an unrealistic shade of yellow might have dispelled all attempts from the audience to bring in outside factors and apply them to the storytelling of the film—at least initially.
Meaning, I believe the creators were able to manipulate the order of message reception through the usage of such a stark yellow on the Martians. First, the audience could consume the film as the film itself; the Martians as characters; their problem-solving as their problem-solving. Only after that might the audience have put two and two together, and realized that the Martians represented the Soviets—or maybe not. Even if the audience did not go that far, consciously, the mildly amusing perception about how great it is to use petroleum would’ve stayed with greater likelihood, because the viewers weren’t bombarded with real-world implications from the get-go.
2) The supposed harmlessness factor
In addition to the stark yellow, many other bright colors are used. This gives the film the lightheartedness of a cartoon that is meant mainly for the consumption of children.
Even in some scary torture scenes, the apparent harmlessness through irrealism stays:
Using various bright colors in a balanced way simply adds too much visual security for the viewers to be truly alarmed. No red blood is shed, no blue bruises are left, and the Martians were mildly-alarmingly yellow, to begin with. No one color gets too much spotlight, except that bright yellow of the Martian skin, and at the beginning of the film, there is so much of that yellow, we form an immunity toward its onslaught.
When an overtly patriotic color palette is used, it is also done in a way that is visually pleasing: balanced and colorful.
3) The rare clarity factor
So then, why didn’t the creators use blue or green or red as the skin color of the Martians?
One theory is related to the symbolic value of the color yellow. It’s the color of happiness and warmth. But at the same time, it is the color of manic creativity. (à la van Gogh.)
But color theory for colors other than green and blue and red sometimes seems too subjective, in my opinion. (The equation “red = blood” is unchangeable. “Blue = sky and water” is also unchangeable. “Green = plants” is also unchangeable. But the rest of the colors? Murky territory, I would say. For example, there are countries that traditionally wear black for funerals. But there are also countries where white is the funeral color. And there are probably more country-specific funeral colors that I don’t know about.)
So, the theory that I’m leaning toward is this: yellow wasn’t chosen for the symbols it represented; it was chosen because it contrasted clearly with blue, green, and red.
Unless the creators wanted to depict a completely unrealistic America where the sky was red, the sky had to stay blue.
Also, trees had to stay green.
And red was reserved for the most alarm-provoking moments as well as the planet Mars.
Since the irreal part is the Martians and not the USA (the country is clearly named within the film), it was necessary to keep the sky and the trees of the USA as close to normal as possible.
Also, although there is no blood in this film, the association between the color red and danger cannot be easily eliminated. Thus, it was probably easier to reserve red as the accent color, as in red stoplights and a few clothing pieces or book covers here and there.
In other words, yellow was chosen because it filled a void after blue, green, and red were already taken as the given, unchangeable colors of the “real” world. There was no other color that more strongly contrasted with blue, green, and red, than yellow.
And why the contrast? For clarity.
In the real world, even as we classify chunks of shades into a few big groups, there is a wide degree of different denseness and darkness. Not so in this short film. Everything is crystal clear.
This choice also differs from some other animated films. Not all animations choose to be clearer than the real world; some go the opposite route, à la toned down watercolor. The most extreme example of this latter route that I can think of is “The Tale of The Princess Kaguya” from Studio Ghibli (2013). Most colors in that film are pale, pastel, soft.
But then, “Prince Kaguya” isn’t an overt, modern propaganda piece like “Destination Earth.” “Destination Earth” needed to scream without screaming audibly. And thus, it screamed in colors, filling every major range in the color spectrum.
Add to these aspects of color usage the use of straightforward movements, and voila, the propaganda can be hidden beneath all the layers of cute little irreal beings.
Just a few examples of straightforward movements are:
- Differing the speed of movement between the foreground and the background
- zoom in/out
- pan up/down
- going from descriptive to abstract, then back to descriptive
- following shape vs. following story (An example of following shape: the bottoms of bottles turning into cogwheels, because they are both round.)
Movements aren’t jumbled together. The direction is clear.
Another important element that cannot be separated from the usage of color is humor. Perhaps the creators knew that regardless of what the self-important politicians thought of themselves, nobody, literally nobody in the audience would care to actually watch and remember the contents of the film unless it was entertaining in one way or another. And of all the many ways in which one could entertain (horror can be entertaining, for example), the creators of “Destination Earth” chose humor.
The Martian who explores the US is a silly little creature indeed, adorable in his curiosity and faithfully optimistic in his certainty that he will find “the cure” to the problems at home.
So, there’s that layer of straightforward humor. And then there’s the layer of dark humor. People couldn’t possibly have believed whatever this film wanted them to believe, no?
I’m not sure. I don’t think there’s a realistic way for me to find out. Even today, the so-called “public reaction” as depicted by many sources (journalistic or academic) is questionable. Given that this film was specifically created for propaganda, I don’t think I will trust the records about the public reaction from the 1950s, now completely unverifiable.
But there are some aspects of the storytelling that makes me wonder if even John Sutherland Studios wasn’t fully on-board with the political requirements of the film. For example, the first reaction that Americans show to the Martian who lands in their backyard is to fire bullets at him, no questions asked! This is darkly hilarious, and questionably propagandistic for the US government—unless the creators/the public at the time thought it was something to be proud of to immediately shoot at someone who happens to find themselves in one’s backyard. I mean, if I had a gun, I would probably fire it if the intruder were to attack me, sure. But with an intruder who seems as clueless as this little Martian? I think I might have waited until at least the third communication attempt.
One more quick note that is unrelated to propaganda: hand-drawn 2D animation has an appeal that no amount of 3D technology can replace. This film has many beautiful scenes. My favorite: the snow scene:
It’s even prettier when you see the snowflakes moving, in the actual film.
Another beautiful scene is how the urban night is depicted:
And with that, it’s time to end this post.
Color is a powerful tool. Even though each of us is not a representative of a government that wants to use propaganda for brainwashing (if you are, go away!), we all want to achieve something in our lives. Noticing colors in visual works will help us utilize color in our real lives. Animations, especially animations like these, are great learning tools thanks to their clarity. And of course, they’re entertaining.
- Destination Earth: https://publicdomainreview.org/collection/destination-earth-1956/
- Animated wonder: https://sponge.ithakaonmymind.com/written/animated-wonder/
- The Tale of The Princess Kaguya: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tale_of_the_Princess_Kaguya_(film)
Vision – Kuyani
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